President Obama told ABC news yesterday that on the subject of same-sex marriage he has been “going through an evolution on this issue.”
He may indeed be going through an intellectual evolution in his thinking about the rights of gay people to marry. His recent remarks indicate that he has undergone a theological evolution as well. Recall that Obama cast his new-found stance on this issue as a reflection of his Christian scruples (a point I hope to explore in greater detail forthwith).
But permit me now in my capacity as a student of Faith and Values campaigning to point to a third type of evolution in his thinking: Obama’s strategists have completely given up on religious conservatives and concluded that they are irredeemably lost to Mitt Romney.
This observation needs to be properly contextualized. In 2008, Democrats were still reeling from the damage that the so-called “values-voters” inflicted upon them in 2004. What the Awesome-Blue-State-God Senator understood back then was that he couldn’t replicate John Kerry’s dismal performance with religious voters.
That is, Obama couldn’t lose nearly 80 percent of a white evangelical constituency that comprised something like a quarter of the electorate. Nor could he afford to tangle with the Catholic hierarchy. It would not have been prudent for him to repeat something on the order of the pro-choice, Catholic Kerry’s “Communion Crisis” of 2004. Having your every visit to a new state trigger an impromptu excoriation from a local bishop is certainly not in the best interests of your long-term presidential aspirations.
Obama’s people knew full well in 2008 that he would never carry the conservative Christian voting bloc. The best he could do was to make sure that it didn’t mobilize against him with the same ferocious, game-changing enthusiasm it had demonstrated four years earlier.
That strategy worked reasonably well as Obama refrained from frontally antagonizing Evangelicals. He was aided in large part by the longstanding tensions between GOP presidential nominee John McCain and the Christian Right. The latter’s suspicion of The Maverick (somewhat and belatedly assuaged by his selection of Sarah Palin) may have resulted in a dip of a few crucial percentage points (Bush 2004, among white “Evangelical/born-again” Christians, 79%; McCain 2008, 73%;). It also meant fewer fundraisers, fewer volunteers, and less positive electoral energy.
Yet, with yesterday’s announcement, the President has exponentially increased the likelihood that a repeat of the 2004 debacle may occur again. Conservative Christians are already mobilizing in reaction to Obama’s sudden clarity on the same-sex marriage issue. It stands to reason that whatever trepidation they might have had about Mormon or flip-floppin’ Mitt Romney will quickly fall by the wayside.
My surmise is that Obama’s people looked carefully at recent blow-ups with the Christian Right (most notably, the HHS mandate episode, which united the crucial co-belligerents of Catholic and evangelical conservatives) and arrived at a conclusion not unlike the one they discovered about the possibilities of bipartisanship with congressional Republicans: It ain’t happenin’.
Ergo, the President has done the electoral math, seized upon the least awful alternative, come out (as it were) in favor of gay marriage, and–with no shortage of fear and trembling–proclaimed “game on!” to the Christian Right.